Deacon Matthew McLaughlin’s rocky road back to the faith ran through the middle of the University Missouri-Rolla (UMR) campus and into the Rolla Catholic Newman Center.
Several decades later, he’s the Newman Center’s new Director and Campus Minister at what is now the Missouri University of Science and Technology (S&T).
“This is a place where you grow in your faith and prepare to serve as members of God’s army on earth, in service of his Great Commission,” the deacon stated.
“That’s what we’re doing with these young people,” he said. “We’re helping them prepare to take their places in the Church, to do God’s work as disciples in a broken and confused world.”
Deacon McLaughlin has been ministering in Phelps County since his ordination to the Diaconate in 2007.
He and his wife, Ellen, met as students at the university and are raising their five children in the college city of 20,000.
“It makes sense that they’d want to hire someone who’s an established member of the community here, who was active at the Newman Center as a student and is now serving as a deacon in the parish,” Mrs. McLaughlin said of her husband.
The Rolla Newman Center’s mission is to serve as a spiritual home to about 1,000 Catholic students at Missouri S&T and other nearby institutions of higher learning.
The center traces its origin to the late Monsignor Gerold J. Kaiser, who in 1953 gathered the Catholic students at the university and told them, “When the intellect and mind grows, so does our faith.”
The impressive and spacious building, completed in 2003 under the visionary leadership of Franciscan Sister Renita Brummer, is adjacent to St. Patrick Church and school and overlooks the S&T campus.
The center’s name honors St. John Henry Newman (1801-90), who came to Catholicism from the Church of England and was influential in bringing Catholic students to and fostering Catholic identity at the Anglican university at Oxford. Pope Francis declared him a saint in 2019.
The center is a place for Catholic students and faculty to deepen their faith and prepare for leadership in the Church.
It’s home to a welcoming faith community and a place to encounter Christ and develop a deep, personal relationship with Him.
Deacon McLaughlin said the center’s primary mission is to form future leaders for the Church.
“This involves meeting Catholic students where they are on their faith journey and accompanying them however far they’re able and willing to follow God from there,” he said.
“It’s not entirely a matter of letting them find their own way,” he noted. “You want to guide and accompany, and sometimes even push, but not beyond what they’re ready for.”
He believes most young people think they’re at S&T to prepare for their role in the workforce.
“But they’re actually at the point where they’re preparing for the entirety of the rest of their lives,” he said. “Their spiritual formation is a critical part of that, and we have the opportunity to serve them in that critical point in their lives.”
Stars and stripes
Deacon McLaughlin earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nuclear engineering while Mrs. McLaughlin completed studies in mathematics and computer science at what was then known as the University of Missouri-Rolla (UMR).
The late “Father Charles Pardee was the associate pastor at St. Patrick and director of the Newman Center,” Deacon McLaughlin recalled. “He’s who welcomed me back into the Church.”
He met the future Mrs. McLaughlin about the same time, and they came to know each other as they were growing in their relationship with Christ.
Ellen was initiated into the Church after taking a job in St. Louis, and the couple got married in 1992. They worked about 100 miles apart for several years before making their permanent home in Rolla.
Deacon McLaughlin served in the U.S. Navy submarine force for six years, followed by 35 years in the Navy Reserve, including a deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2003.
Recognizing a call “to serve God’s people in some special way,” he was accepted into candidacy and formation for the Permanent Diaconate and was ordained with his classmates on May 5, 2007.
The couple adopted the first of their five children a few weeks later.
“We sometimes joke that I needed the grace of being a deacon before God would let me be a father,” he said.
He also took up a new role as a civilian engineer with the U.S. Army at Fort Leonard Wood around that time.
He retired from the Navy Reserve in November 2020 and from his Army civilian position in July 2021.
That’s when his pastor, Father Gregory Meystrik, talked to him about serving as director of the Newman Center.
“He was looking for a full-timer,” Deacon McLaughlin recalled. “I told him I couldn’t do that — I retired because I needed to spend more time with my wife and kids.”
A few months later, the subject of serving as campus minister came up again.
“I said I could see myself doing it part-time,” the deacon recalled. “Father said, ‘We might be able to work with that.’ And the next thing you know, I’m hired.”
Mrs. McLaughlin noted that the center needed an anchor, someone with strong ties to the community who wants to stay around for a while.
“And maybe someone who had been there and knows how to talk ‘engineer,’” the deacon added.
Mind and heart
Deacon McLaughlin said his role as campus minister extends beyond the walls of the Newman Center building.
“I don’t see my role as being limited to the Newman Community, per se,” he said. “I see it as being of service to all the Catholic students on campus and to some extent, the Catholic faculty and staff.”
He pointed out two things that set Missouri S&T apart from many other institutes of higher learning.
“It’s a STEM university,” he said, referring to the disciplines of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
“So, you draw a very analytical type of person. And unlike most colleges, it has a very skewed male-to-female ratio. Even now, three quarters of the undergraduate population is male.”
He said most students, male or female, who come to the Rolla Newman Center take a much more analytical and thoughtful approach to their faith, rather than an emotional appeal to it.
“Not that the two are mutually exclusive,” the deacon noted. “But when you start getting into discussions and debates of Catholicism versus other faiths, or degrees of orthodoxy within Catholicism, all of these discussions tend to become academic in nature here.
“So, a significant part of the ministry here is helping these young people to make that connection between the head and the heart,” he said.
It’s a struggle he’s personally familiar with.
“This is pretty much the environment I’ve always functioned in,” he said.
Just as Fr. Pardee helped Deacon McLaughlin find a more balanced approach to spirituality, the new director wants to do the same for today’s students.
“There’s the challenge of leading somebody beyond the mind to the heart, leading them past the law to the mercy,” Deacon McLaughlin noted. “Because if somebody, especially a young person, feels like they have THE answer, they can be judgmental of those who do not have or do not accept that answer.
“Doing God’s work”
The Newman Center director works with an elected body of students, the Newman Council, which sets the schedule for worship and activities at the center.
Deacon McLaughlin said most of the time he spends with students is between 2 and 10 p.m.
Every Wednesday evening while school is in session, more than 45 students gather in St. Patrick Church for Mass at 8:15 p.m., followed by volleyball in the parish hall and fellowship in the Newman Center’s student lounge.
Deacon McLaughlin sees having the Wednesday evening Masses at church as a way of connecting with Catholic students who aren’t comfortable getting fully involved at the Newman Center.
“It’s a more gradual segue into the community,” he noted.
Students also spend time on Monday and Tuesday afternoons adoring Christ in the Most Blessed Sacrament in the Incarnate Word Chapel at the Newman Center.
Other activities include study groups, socials, meetings and service projects.
Four campus missionaries of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (FOCUS) make the Rolla Newman Center their base of operations, leading Bible studies and mentoring students to become missionary disciples.
Deacon McLaughlin said his perspective on the Newman Center has broadened and matured since his days as a student.
“When we were there, I saw it as a home, a sanctuary, a place where I was growing in my faith,” he said.
“All those are a part of it and still need to be part of it today,” he stated. “We do want to give them a place where they can let their hair down with other faithful young people and just relax in a fun, safe and sanctified environment.
“On the other hand, we want to encourage their development into disciples who will go out and bring Christ to others,” he said.
“Our call as the Church is to work against the power of death — not just to defend ourselves against the power of death, but to go out and confront the power of death on its own turf,” he stated.
This can only happen when the students are willing to accept and evangelize one another.
“We’re all made in God’s image,” the deacon noted. “But the reality of God’s goodness is so infinite that there are countless individual ways in which we are called to show his image to the world.
“That is why we are all needed as members of the Body of Christ,” he said.
The Rolla Newman Center has always been a ministry of St. Patrick Parish.
Deacon McLaughlin said a key to the center’s future success is building a stronger relationship with Catholic alumni and the parents of Catholic students.
He asks for prayers as the Rolla Newman community plans for the future — “examining who we are, what we’re doing, what we’re called to do, where we’re falling short, how we can best understand the mission that God has for us.”
“We ask people to join us in praying for clarity in how best to serve God’s young people, and the wisdom and perseverance to do it well,” he said.
He pointed out that the early Christians were drawn to the Church less by doctrine and Liturgy than by the love and respect Christ’s followers showed to one another, day in and day out.
That’s an important reminder for all people whose paths to holiness converge at the Rolla Newman Center.
“I preach that Catholicism offers a glorious variety in terms of ways to worship God, licitly and in an orthodox manner,” said Deacon McLaughlin. “The depth and breadth and the full spectrum of the beauty of Catholicism is a big piece of what we need to help our young people appreciate — without losing their passion and appreciation for what they already know.”